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FOR ISABEL by Antonio Tabucchi


A Mandala

by Antonio Tabucchi ; translated by Elizabeth Harris

Pub Date: Sept. 5th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-914671-80-0
Publisher: Archipelago

One man’s search for a missing woman grows less factual and more metaphysical.

This slim novel by the Italian novelist Tabucchi (1943-2012; Tristano Dies, 2015, etc.), first published a year after his death, is subtitled “A Mandala,” which suggests its structure: one man is journeying through concentric circles of evidence to uncover deeper ideas about truth. At the outset (or, rather, outer circles), it’s a straightforward detective story: a man, Tadeus, is searching for Isabel, an activist who was apprehended and beaten by police for protesting Portugal’s authoritarian regime. Tadeus’ interest in her is initially unclear, and his provenance is unusual (he claims to hail from the star Sirius), but no matter: the story is mainly narrated by others who knew her, from a college friend to her nanny to a musician friend to members of a loose resistance group called The Organization that sheltered her after her escape from jail. Asked why he’s performing this search, Tadeus responds, “to reach consciousness,” and in its latter pages the novella echoes that more ascetic motivation, untethering itself from matters of politics and relationships to dwell on ghosts, spirits, and the urge to be one with the universe. (“The important thing is to search, and not if you find something or you don’t,” one interlocutor tells Tadeus.) In that regard, the book is something of an inheritor to the works of Hermann Hesse (who’s referenced in the novel), another Western author who was interested in Eastern spiritual practices. The book’s brevity means Tabucchi can do little more than sketch out these themes, but there’s a satisfying richness to the whole, and translator Harris gracefully navigates the narrator’s tonal shift from gumshoe to spiritual seeker, making the story lyrical and surprising while avoiding airiness.

An unusually structured but engaging jaunt into the ineffable.